Education, Universities

The Constrained University

Sunday, 15th September 2019

I have been officially certified as “Ethical” by my institution, at least for another year. Thanks be to our lord and savior Immanuel Kant. I am also certified in the technologies of squealing and ratting out my peers, otherwise known as whistleblowing, and I am assured that I will face no repercussions if I do this (as if that was the only possible problem with such action).

As I’ve said elsewhere, I wish they wouldn’t use the term ethics for this kind of action. The word they’re looking for is “obedience”. But ok, if we’re going to call this ethics, let’s do some ethics here.

It strikes me that there are several different incommensurable ethical systems at work here. We have had duties imposed upon us, and these duties are conditions of our employment. Some of these duties are no doubt reasonable, others not. But the point here is that these are presented as duties (hence, my use of the term “obedience”). Even though they are duties, though, we are expected to internalize them, not by deducing them from a moral imperative (this is where we deviate from Kant, btw), but by seeing the inherent truth and goodness of these duties. Many times I have had people try to convince me of the inherent goodness of the duties they are imposing, but when questioned about them they cannot defend their goodness. They invariably fall back on the obligatory nature of the commands, while still wishing that I would see the inner goodness and rightness of them without adequate defense.

Those devising and implementing this, though, operate in a utility-maximization capacity, that is, as consequentialists (put simply, maximize things we like and minimize things we don’t like). In other words, the specific commands are in place because they avoid lawsuits, meet regulatory expectations which keeps us out of the situation of sanctions. This is governed, after all by the “Office of Compliance and Risk” – clearly signalling that the point here is to minimize risk.

They also transfer maximal knowledge and insight about campus activities to those who have no direct access to it, that is, upper level administrators. This operates like a confessional, in other words, and Foucault has long ago given us great insight on how a culture of surveillance can be normalized and internalized. “See something, say something” – doesn’t that just depend on an individual’s parsing of a complex Kantian set of duties, along with the fuzzy edges around it (“if you’re not sure, report it”)? Doesn’t this whistleblowing activity centralize information about everyone in an organization, and make it more likely that the freedom of action that all these people feel is curtailed in overt and covert ways? And doesn’t this just try to make a moral code instinctual and natural which is not otherwise defensible?

The scripting and surveillance of life on campus is not even the main thing I’m worried about here. I’m actually more worried about the transfer of skills of judgment away from people in the organization and to centralized authority. The more people that are under direction, in almost all their actions (be that obedience codes like ours, or policies, procedures, forms, assessments, metrics, rubrics and all the rest of these), the more peoples’ sense of agency and creativity is transferred away from them and to someone else. This was the fear early on in the industrial age, especially with the changes that Henry Ford brought about and then later Taylor, Gilbreth, and others – as you prescribe and constrain actions, you transfer expertise to machines and to those procedures, and away from individuals. You maximize productivity, but at the expense of creativity. We don’t need to have robots take our jobs – we can just make people into robots.

Does this go too far? Some will no doubt say that it does. Look, aren’t universities still the bastions of free thought and creative enterprise in society? This hasn’t happened, has it?

But I think it has and continues to. I see more and more people disengaging from their academic worlds, both where I work and elsewhere around the country and around the world. These people don’t rise up and make a scene; rather, they slink away, bit by bit, disillusioned and bitter. They quit, or they ask to teach all their courses online, or they move far away from the institution and just come in one or two days a week. They do minimal service. It’s easy to think of them as the deadwood, as the losers, and to think it’s all their fault. No one asks why they leave or why they aren’t seen or heard from anymore. The next bright young thing offering a new shiny object now gets the attention.

This started by thinking about ethics, and there are other approaches to ethics I didn’t mention, which bring up the starkest contradiction. These are approaches that start not from asking about what I as an individual should do (we can call these theories of the right, that is, what’s the right thing to do and how do I determine that?). Both the duty approach and the consequentialist approach are versions of that. But there are also theories of the good, that is, how do I be a good person? And, there are also theories about good places and good societies – what do those look like and how do we both work towards them and live well in them?

If what I’ve said so far is true, that much of the action of large institutions like this leads to disengagement and disillusionment, then the most serious contradiction is this: There is a great deal of talk about the creative, intellectual, supportive community that universities are supposed to create. There is a fundamental expectation that everyone will work towards that, even putting in far more hours and energy into building that than one’s contract stipulates. It’s not a job, it’s a calling. We should go above and beyond – for the students, for each other, to build this new good thing. The university absolutely depends on people doing things for the good of others. If all of us gave up on doing those things, the whole place would grind to a halt immediately. The echoes of the medieval Western roots of universities as religious-based institutions still live.

That’s the problem with ethics certifications like this, along with every other thing that drives people into passivity, deskills them, takes away their judgment and initiative and love. This runs directly into the need for the university to have people who are not all these things. Universities are not corporations. They depend on the self-directed creativity of their members. But they do their level best at making conditions maximally hostile to that creativity. The center cannot hold.

Solutions? Well, one is that disillusioned people finally leave, and new people, just happy to have a job in an oversaturated market, can come on and be exploited until they too become disillusioned. That seems to be the preferred model. Other solutions? Change the system. That gets harder by the day, as administrative ranks swell and faculty ranks shift away from permanent, tenured people and towards the gig economy.

Another solution: to recognize that ethics is more complex than mere obedience. To realize that when we start thinking about the good place, the good organization or institution, we’re asking different questions than ones of compliance, and those are more important than the questions about compliance, not less important. Good organizations require good functioning at all levels, and that cannot be achieved by some people determining how others should act in every situation. It cannot be achieved through successive and ever more precise regimes of constraint. If no one can be trusted, no one will be creative. The only people who make great art in repressive regimes are the dissidents; I can guarantee that the same will be true in the constrained university.

My preferred solution? That administrators and faculty would understand this growing tension, take it seriously, and find ways to not shift judgment and agency away from one group and towards another. I’m not holding my breath that that will happen.

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